Driving along this afternoon listening to John Kelly, my favourite radio presenter, doing his afternoon show on Lyric FM, I was intrigued by the title of a track that he announced he was about to play, ‘Can’t beat Duff’. Anything is possible on John Kelly’s programme so it seemed reasonable that there would be a track called ‘Can’t beat Duff’.
‘Who is Duff?’ I wondered, as the music began.
A female voice sang the lyrics. ‘Can’t be tough’.
John Kelly’s Northern accent made the consonants harder to my ear, a gentle love song becoming something that sounded like the title of a song about an Irish footballer.
Mishearing Northern voices is a common experience in Dublin, not just mishearing the words that are said, but mishearing the meaning of those words. There is a directness, an almost confrontational openness, in much of what is said in the North.
Back in the mid-1990s BBC Radio 4 ran a programme on the Northern Protestants, at one of the rounds of talks politicians were asked about their negotiating position. They outlined their stance in plain terms. When asked about their fallback position, they had none; they had laid all their cards on the table
Transparency amongst Northern politicians, from both traditions, contrasts with opaqueness amongst some of their Dublin counterparts. One prominent Dublin politician is alleged to have admitted during the peace process that what he said and what he meant weren’t necessarily the same thing, his words might have been clear, his meanings would be entirely misheard. Not just in Dublin, but in London too, there was a habit of saying and meaning different things. John Major once claimed that the thought of talking to the IRA would turn his stomach, his claim coming at the very time that talks were taking place leading to the 1994 ceasefire.
Northern words and meanings can be misheard, because in the worldly-wise world of Dublin, we nuance what everyone says. We assume that things are said for effect, that all politicians indulge in spin. We have become cynical about public life, assuming the satirists and the cartoonists are closer to the truth than our public representatives.
Without having sympathy for Adams or Paisley, there is a danger in us misunderstanding them, a danger much more serious than getting the title of the song wrong.